Aunt Debra held the bullet between her fingers as if grading a diamond, then turned to my mother and said, "This has your name on it."
It was Christmas 1991, and we had gone to visit my grandmother, who lived with Debra—my mother's sister—in a steel house surrounded by a 10-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Guns lay on every couch, table and chair, although it didn't faze Grandma, who suffered from Alzheimer's.
Countless editorials have been written about the proliferation of guns in America, and a new crop is regularly published after the latest school shooting, workplace rampage or, more recently, the mall massacre in Omaha, Neb., and church and missionary shootings in two Colorado towns. Nonetheless, the National Rifle Association uses its political ammunition to oppose waiting periods on gun purchases and bans on the sale of assault weapons; I've all but surrendered to the idea that Congress and state legislators are too weak-willed to pass stricter gun laws in America.
So we live—and die—by the consequences. People like Aunt Debra or Robert Hawkins, the mentally ill teen who killed eight shoppers and employees in Nebraska, shouldn't have weapons, yet easily acquire them.
Debra outgunned the local sheriff's department. Despite her schizophrenia, which remained untreated, she legally bought multiple AK-47s and Tech 9s, a 12-gauge Street Sweeper, six Mach 11 machine guns and dozens of shotguns, .44s and .38s, and 40,000 rounds of ammunition.
She threatened to kill my parents. She threatened to kill her co-workers at the nursing home. She threatened to kill anyone who she felt had aggrieved her.
The possibility of her murdering a lot of people shadowed me throughout my adolescence. And the police were useless. When my mother called to report her suspicions—later verified—that Debra was abusing Grandma, the sheriff refused to send a deputy to investigate. "My officers have families," he told my mother, "and they're not going to risk their lives for one old lady."
Even the local mortician was stunned by her firepower. He had been at the house once as an EMT because Grandma had fallen ill. "We were aghast," he told me years later as we sat in his funeral parlor. "There were guns all over. She was expecting a takeover."
To forestall bankruptcy, Debra sold most of her arsenal, and those weapons disappeared into the marketplace of violence. Ironically, the last gun she used was a run-of-the-mill 9 mm. The night she was fired from her job, she went home and shot herself. After we found her body two weeks later, I remember staring at the medical examiner's stained blue gloves lying in a pile of brown leaves, and feeling grateful she didn't take out anyone else.